Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Automated Confusion

I just finished a six day trip in Olympic National Park where I learned some things and relearned others.

One thing I relearned was that I can really make tracks when conditions are good. Carrying a light pack and walking on level ground I can make at least three and a half miles an hour. This eats trails.

Although a lot of this trip was steeply up or steeply down I still finished the trip a day early. The keys were easy travel on the long stretches of nearly flat trail, easy navigation, and being familiar with the route. I had walked over all the ground before and basically knew about where I was at all times.

Another thing I relearned was how important it is to pay attention.

Coming down the East Fork of the Quinault River I was nearing the end of the trail when I met some people. This stretch of trail is just about the easiest and most pleasant I've been on. Not the most scenic, in the sense that people think of when they say "scenic". No high, snowy, rocky views that go on forever. But nice.

This trail lies low and parallel to the river. It is shaded. A hiker sees leaves and moss. There are small open parks and many small streams. Not much to see aside from green. Green leaves. Green grass. Green moss. And sun dapples.

It is quiet and calm. The walking is easy.

There is a landmark near the west end of this trail. It is called Pony Bridge, and is about two miles from the trail's end. I was almost there when I met the people.

A father and two sons I think. The man was standing in the middle of the trail, blocking it. I slowed as I approached, hoping that he would move aside, wondering if he would. He didn't. He was busy, engrossed with his right hand, or something in it. Yes, something in it. A small black plastic brick.

When we were almost touching, still peering at the palm of his hand he asked me where Pony Bridge was. Ahead, a quarter mile to a half mile, give or take a quarter mile, I said. Close.

He didn't like that. His brick insisted that Pony Bridge was behind him somewhere. He told me so. He seemed ready to turn and walk back upstream.

Here were the facts: (1) he hadn't crossed the bridge and (2) he wasn't standing on it. So the bridge had to be ahead. But no, his little plastic GPS brick kept telling him that the bridge was behind him. So. He was paralyzed. Immobile. Confused. Insistent. Upset.

His sons sat on the trail, bored, like they'd heard a lot of this lately.

I hadn't checked my map for a while. Or my watch. No point. I knew about where I was. Crossing Pony Bridge was mandatory. Otherwise you didn't leave. It had been two hours since the last map and watch check, so my estimate was a bit off. We were maybe 300 yards from the bridge, a little less than a quarter mile, but very close. One hundred forty yards off. Good guess.

I had topographic maps and had been there before. I knew that the broad, flat valley of the Quinault River narrowed and became rocky, and that at Pony Bridge it narrowed to a slit in the rock. You could tell this from a map if you looked and then thought for three seconds.

So. The valley had narrowed. We were between rocky walls. Not yet a chasm, but no longer a flat valley. Obvious. This had to be close to the bridge.

But when you pay $600 for a plastic thing and go out unprepared you can have a hard time. After all, $600 has to be right, but it's so easy to be wrong. No thinking required. Add batteries, push some buttons, and let the electronic circuits make your mistakes.

The man began arguing with me because his toy insisted that what he saw was wrong, that what I knew about the trail was wrong. OK. I told him that I just used my maps and paid attention to the landscape. Didn't know anything about his gizmo.

No good. Not for him. He muttered and pushed more buttons, and turned left, then right. So I started walking again. And was at the bridge almost immediately.

There were a half dozen youngsters there, and one adult man. I told them about the idiot back up the trail and they said that he was with them. Sorry.

No need to apologize, they said. They had been out for a week, and the brick had been arguing with them all the time. The man at the bridge had a couple of maps, a watch and a compass (like me), and said he was doing fine. And had been more right for the whole week than the guy with the $600 toy.

The man and his brick eventually trudged into view. I wonder what he thought. If anything.

So here's the moral. Buy maps. Read them. Get familiar with the trail. Watch the landscape. Know how fast you walk. Maintain a mental picture. Listen when little alarms go off in your head. Question your conclusions and demand proof from yourself. Pay attention to what you see.

The best way to get into deep trouble is to make a mistake and then compound it with another one, and then another. When people get lost or die it's not a sudden event. It's because they make one little mistake and shrug it off. Because of that first mistake they make another, and then another, and pretty soon it's over.

Be alert. Your country needs lerts.